Women in Early China
Ching, Julia, Chinese Religions, “The Ancestral Cult and Divination”, pp
15-22; “Sacrifice and Kingship”, pp. 33-50.
O'Hara, Albert R., The position of women in early China: according to the Lieh
Nu Chuan, "The Biographies of Eminent Chinese Women." pp. 25585.
Hinsch, Bret, Women in Early Imperial China, pp 1-13, 15-26.
Li, Chenyang, The Tao Encounters the West, “How a Care Ethics
Could have Oppressed Women”, pp 108-114.
“Reflections on Chinese Despotism and the Power of the Inner
Court”, Soulliere, Ellen F., 1984 in Asian Profile, 12.2:130-45.
“Imperial Marriages of the Ming Dynasty,” Soulliere, Ellen F., 1988 in
Papers in Far Eastern History, 37:1542.
Women in Early China
Discussion Question
The role of women in Ancient Chinese Religion
The Role of Royal Women in Early China
– Royal women in the Shang
– Royal women in the Zhou
Confucianism and Women
– Development of Confucianism
– Education
Changing Status of Women
Discussion Question
What are your impressions of a traditional Chinese woman in China?
– List her characteristics?
– Was the role of the woman the same at different periods of
– What gave you these impressions?
Discussion Question (2)
Is this the picture you have of the historical Chinese woman?
– That women have always been powerless as the Chinese social
system was patrilineal and patriarchal?
– That women are victims and suffered in silence.
– Women had no legal rights, no rights within the family; they
could not own property and if they had any property, they could
not dispose of their own property.
– They had no right of divorce whereas men did?
– That they had no choice in marriage – did men have a choice?
Discussion Question (3)
– That the women had to work indoors due to the idea of the
separation of women (and their feet were bound to make sure they
stay there).
– Women were thought to be intellectually and morally inferior to
men and needed guidance, care and control.
– Chastity was most important and so women’s activity was
restricted to the family.
View of Chinese women during late 19th century:
– The victimized woman represented the backwardness of China;
solution – nationalism and strengthening of the state;
westernization and feminism.
History and the Study of Women
When we study Chinese women, we must understand
how we Discover what happened in the past.
– The study of history is based on archaeology, the
linguistics, records and now DNA.
 Archaeology: Skeletons and artifacts found in
archaeological diggings such as writings on bronze
vessels and oracle bones.
 Linguistics: Languages spoken by different groups.
 Records: Compilations, made by historians, of
records previously available on bamboo and/or
silk but have since rotted or burned in wars in
ancient times.
History and the Study of Women: Historians
Chinese historians were men who recorded or selected from available
materials what they thought were important – only one female
historian of record: Ban Zhao.
– They were male Confucian officials who believed that history
should provide lessons of instruction and so materials were chosen
to show examples of good practices and bad practices.
– Historians were interested in recording government affairs and so
non-governmental affairs were usually ignored.
 Since Chinese history was written by male Confucian officials who
were interested in history as lessons to be learned, women were
mentioned either as models of virtue or as causes of disaster.
 The public are then only familiar with controversial figures such as
Empresses Lü of the Han, Wu of the Tang, and Cixi of the Qing.
– They are pictured as evil women who usurp power; but,
– Empresses Lü and Wu are also recorded as good rulers.
History and the Study of Women: Historians (2)
There were many other Empress Dowagers (senior widows) who
served as regents who were recorded as being good rulers.
– If they were not good rulers, their maintenance of power would
not be tolerated.
– The historians always felt that the regents should retire as soon as
the emperors come of age but many great regents refused to retire
but stayed in power until their deaths.
– Some regents even named their successor regents in their wills
although this was usually ignored after the regent’s death.
Many empresses ruled in the names of their ill husbands or advised
him during his rule.
History and the Study of Women: Historians (3)
Since history and literature only records the lives of elite women –
women in the upper classes – the information we have is limited to
this area.
For the lives of ordinary women, legal cases will have to be consulted.
However, Chinese do not ordinarily like to resort to the court or to
the Yamen 衙门 except in unusual situations or in the cases of the
more well-to-do classes.
Due to the limitation of materials the view we have of traditional
women, before the Women’s Movement, is limited mostly to the elite
– Poor women who have to work for a living could not behave in
the same way and still survivr.
History and the Study of Women: Historians (4)
An example of how distorted the image of women can be through the
study of available materials is “prostitution”.
 In reading Chinese literature and other records, one might get the
impression that prostitutes (courtesans) were well educated, led
relatively happy lives and consorted (kept company) with the educated
and the wealthy.
 They would be redeemed (bought) by these clients to be their
– There is no mention of the fact that these women were bought by
the brothels as poor children and educated to entertain and to
provide sexual services to the elite clients.
– Nor is there mention that Courtesans was a very small percentage
of the prostitute population.
 They are the “elite” prostitutes and were a very select group.
History and the Study of Women: Historians (5)
Throughout Chinese history, there were two different categories of
– Private
– State managed.
The “courtesans” were those that were not managed by the state.
The lives of the other prostitutes (not managed by the state) did not
live such romantic lives: They were:
– Divorcees, widows, and discarded concubines who may have to
support themselves by working out of temples disguised as nuns
(temples were places where travelers stayed).
– Wives or daughters of poor families who may work as part time
prostitutes to help support their families.
History and the Study of Women: Historians (6)
State managed prostitution, called yuehu 乐户, existed throughout
Chinese history.
– It has been recorded as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220
CE) and was finally abolished by Emperor Yongzheng 雍正帝 (r.
1723–1735) of the Qing dynasty (1644-1211).
– These prostitution houses were created to provide sexual services
to the soldiers.
– The prostitutes were the families of men who had been found
guilty of crimes.
– The status of prostitution was hereditary; that is, once you are a
prostitute your children and grandchildren and so on will always be
History and the Study of Women: Historians (7)
When we study Chinese women, we must work from available
 Most are written by Confucian scholars and officials who are not
interested in writing about women and whatever they write may show
their preference for a male-dominated society.
 It is also difficult to study women as they left little record of
– Most of what the women wrote were poetry about longing for
their lovers or husbands or about their unhappy lives.
 Knowing these limitations we will move on and try and get a picture
of what is the life of a traditional woman.
View of Chinese women in the 20th Century
In the early 20th century, Western as well as Chinese men and women
thought that China was backward, compared to the West, and that it
was due to the social system.
They felt that:
Both men and women were oppressed by the patrilineal and
patriarchal system but that women suffered more than men.
The crippling of women with bound feet meant that they produced
weak children.
The victimization of women therefore represented the backwardness
of China.
Solution – liberation and education of women, strengthening of the
state, and westernization.
Men and women believed in the need to change the system and that
the liberation of women, the mothers of the future citizens of China,
was an essential part of the change.
View of Chinese women in the 20th Century (2)
They felt that women have been static and oppressed for over 2,000
Since then, archaeological studies as well as studies of specific periods of
history have shown that the role of women:
– Has not always been the same over the past 2,000 years.
– The woman was not totally subservient to the man.
– The woman had legal rights in society.
– Women who ruled were not necessarily evil ones who used beauty
and charm to gain political and economic power.
The Role of Women in Ancient Chinese Religion:
Creation myths
Every culture has its creation myth(s) – its reasoning for its coming
into being.
There are many creation myths in China.
Many of us have heard of the Daoist version regarding Pan Gu who
was hatched from a cosmic egg.
– Half the shell is above him as the sky, the other half below him as
the earth.
– He grows taller each day for 18,000 years, gradually pushing them
apart until they reach their appointed places.
– After all this effort he falls to pieces. His limbs become the
mountains, his blood the rivers, his breath the wind and his voice
the thunder. His two eyes are the sun and the moon. The parasites
on his body are mankind.
The Role of Women in Ancient Chinese Religion:
Creation myths (2)
In another Chinese creation myths we find a goddess, Nüwa 女娲,
who was supposed to have made human beings from yellow clay:
– Sculpting each one individually and these became the nobles.
– Tired, she dipped a rope in clay and flicked it and blobs of clay
landed everywhere – each became a person and these are the
– Some of the figures melted in the rain while they were drying and
these were the sick or those with physical abnormalities.
When a male god broke the pillar attaching earth to heaven Nüwa was
said to have repaired the universe.
– So, in ancient times some thought that human beings were made
by a goddess and that a goddess restored order.
The Role of Women in
Ancient Chinese Religion
Women were honored in ancient religion:
– In Liaoning, archaeologists have dug up statues (1986) of pregnant
females surrounded by dragons, tortoises, birds and cicadas– that date
back to 4,500-2,500 B.C.E.
– Northeast of this site, they found a life-sized head of a female figure
dating from 3,000 B.C.E..
– Oracle bones, used in divination also referred to a “Western Mother”
and an “Eastern Mother”.
 References to these goddesses are also found in the “Classic of
Mountains and Oceans” written about 400 and 300 B.C.E.
The Role of Women in Ancient Chinese Religion:
Shamans wu 巫 were those who communicated between the human
world and spiritual one.
Shamans were important in all primitive religions in different parts of the
world – from the earliest times to the present day.
In China, the word wu 巫 (shaman) originally referred to females as
women were thought best suited for this role due to their ability to give
Later, Kings took over the offerings of sacrifices and the role of the
shaman became less religious.
Once the king, a male, could assume the duties of a shaman; other men
could also do so.
The status of women was lowered as they were not the only link between
humans and the spiritual world.
The Role of Women in
Ancient Chinese Religion (2)
After the Shang dynasty 商朝 (ca. 1600-ca 1046 B.C.E.), the status of
women in religion was further reduced as the practice of divination 占卜;
预测 lost some favor as intellectuals could not find answers to questions
through divination.
Rational (理性的, 推理的, 合理的) philosophy 哲学 – finding the
meaning of life through reasoning rather than through worship and
inquiry of the spirits – further reduced the importance of shamanism.
– During the Eastern Zhou several great minds – men such as Confucius 孔子,
Mencius 孟子, Laozi 老子 and Zhuangzi 庄子– tried to solve the governmental
problem of their times and their teachings.
– They focused on the place of human in the universe and on the need of finding
social and natural harmony.
– Increasingly, human destiny was associated with the activities of humans rather than
with the authority of spirits and ghosts.
Shamans became less respected and the role of women was further
reduced – however, there continued to be female shamans for the
common people.
The Role of Royal Women in Early China
Royal Women in the Shang
[1766-1121 B.C.E. (644 years)]
Archaeological work near the Shang capital near Anyang 安陽 uncovered
11 major royal tombs and the foundations of palace and ritual sites.
– More than 20,000 inscribed oracle bones were discovered together
with tens of thousands of bronze, jade, stone, bone and ceramic
Shang society was already patrilineal and patriarchal.
The Role of Royal Women in Early China
Royal Women in the Shang (2)
Under this system, royal wives and other women could exercise
considerable authority and had high status.
– Kings offered sacrifices to their female as well as male ancestors.
– Health of a royal consort was often the subject of the king’s
– Shang kings seemed to have practiced monogamy in the beginning
but later adopted polygamy.
The Role of Royal Women in Early China:
Royal Women in the Shang (3)
King Wu Ding 武丁 (c.1200-1181 BC) was said to have had at least 64
concubines, not all of whom lived in the palace.
– Those he did not favor were given a piece of territory.
– Some were ordered to perform sacrifices or to conduct military expeditions.
– They traveled back and forth between the capital and the outlying regions
on the king’s business, and were trusted officers.
The wives of subject rulers may have presented tribute at the Shang court on
behalf of their husbands or the women may in fact have been subject rulers
The overall impression is that royal wives, and perhaps upper-class women,
were generally respected and held positions of authority though Shang women
typically occupied a position inferior to men.
The Role of Royal Women in Early China:
Royal Women in the Shang (4)
Tombs of three of Wu Ding’s royal spouses were found in one site. One,
presumed to be that of Fu Hao 妇好, Royal Consort of King Wu Ding,
was buried with large quantities of artifacts including bronzes and pottery.
According to archaeological findings, Fu Hao:
– Was an active person who gave birth to at least three children.
– Was a hero among women.
– Was a leader in both civil and military affairs and was virtuous in
civilian administration and able to pacify allies.
– Led military campaigns to the four border regions and participated in
almost all of the famous and important wars of the period.
– Presided over sacrifices.
The Role of Royal Women in Early China:
Royal Women in the Zhou [1122-221 B.C.E. (867 years)]
History divides the Zhou into the
Western Zhou (1122-771 B.C.E.),
with its capital in Xian 西安 and
the Eastern Zhou (771-221 B.C.E.)
with its capital at Luoyang 洛阳.
The Eastern Zhou was divided into:
– The Spring and Autumn Period
(722-481 B.C.E.) and the
Warring States Period 战国时
The Role of Royal Women in Early China:
Royal Women in the Zhou(2)
During the Western Zhou, royal wives had an active role in government.
– Bronze inscriptions showed that queens had their own officers and
were persons of status.
– The consort to King Cheng (c.1035-1006 BC) appears in several
bronze inscriptions performing functions that normally would have
been those of a king.
The status of the royal women in the Eastern Zhou appears to have been
reduced as their duties are now limited in the palace.
– However, they had the same ranking and pay structure as their male
counterparts in the civil service.
The Role of Royal Women in Early China:
Royal Women in the Zhou (3)
The King married 12 women at one time:
– One state would send a primary bride accompanied by a younger
sister and a niece, while two related states would each send a
secondary bride, also accompanied by a younger sister and a niece,
making a total of nine.
– The primary bride became the primary wife, and the other women
who accompanied her all became secondary wives.
– This ensured that even if the primary wife did not produce an heir
there might still be an heir from the wife’s natal/birth lineage, thus
preserving the marital relationships.
– These wives were there to protect the interests of their natal states
and produce heirs who would ensure long term friendship between
the two states.
The Role of Royal Women in Early China:
Royal Women in the Zhou (3)
The subject kings married 9; the nobles married lesser numbers according
to rank.
The harem of a ruler also included concubines and maids.
There were at least 9 ranks.
They were distinguished according to titles.
A woman’s ranking determined the status of her children in the
succession but it could change.
A concubine could be elevated to a primary wife and this would occur if
she became his favorite or if her son became the heir.
The size of the harem could run into the hundreds.
The Role of Royal Women in Early China:
Status of Women in the Zhou
Gender roles became defined at birth as early as the Zhou:
– In the Book of Poetry:
 So he bears a son,
 And puts him to sleep upon a bed,
 Clothes him in robes,
 Gives him a jade scepter to play with.
 Then he bears a daughter,
 And puts her on the ground,
 Clothes her in swaddling clothes,
 Gives her a loom-whorl to play with.
Confucianism and Women
Confucianism dominated Chinese thinking for about 2,000 years –
throughout that time, Confucianism evolved and changed as the values of
society changed.
It had a great influence on the status of women in China and as
Confucianism changed, so did the status of women.
– In the Confucian social order, human relationships tended to be
hierarchical (ranked) and fixed.
Women lived in a patriarchal system and so were given a subordinate role.
– The more Confucian a society was – the more structured and
hierarchical – the more subordinate a woman’s role was.
Confucianism and Women:
Development of Confucianism
Confucianism 孔学/孔教 refers to a philosophy and religious tradition
that is traced back to Confucius 孔子 (c.551-479 B.C.E.).
– It is thought of as a philosophy as Confucius and those who came
after him tried to find a rational answer to the questions regarding
life’s meaning and order in society (rather than a spiritual reason).
– It is thought of as a religion as Confucius had faith in Heaven and
wanted to do the Will of Heaven 天.
For Confucians, women were valued for the continuation of the family,
allowing fulfillment of obligations to ancestors and future prosperity.
– Women were to be the teachers of the next generation.
Confucianism and Women:
Development of Confucianism (2)
During the Han dynasty, Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 developed yin-yang
Confucianism which said that as Heaven dominates Earth, Ruler
dominates subject; father dominates son; husband dominates wife.
– Dong said that as the sun (“yang”) is above the earth (“yin”), the
husband who is “yang” – the male force – is superior and to the wife
who is “yin” – the female force .
– Therefore, even if the man is from a humble family, he would be
superior to the wife from a noble family.
These values gained prominence in China after Confucianism was chosen
as the state doctrine/ideology during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220
– The role of women suffered and was diminished after the
development of yin-yang Confucianism.
Confucianism and Women:
Development of Confucianism (3)
In time, Confucianism grew more conservative and so moe
Neo-Confucianism in the Song 宋 emphasized:
– The woman’s filial piety towards her parents-in-law rather than
towards her parents.
– The woman was a member of the husband’s family (rather than of
her own natal/birth one).
– The husband’s family owed her greater protection and her sons
owed her special reverence since she is part of their family.
Confucianism and Women:
Development of Confucianism (4)
– The Song emperor even ordered the princesses to pay special homage to
their parents-in-law and to follow their family regulations despite their
royal statuses.
An intolerance for widow remarriage was beginning in the Song period – but,
there was no emphasis on widow suicide.
– A neo-Confucian scholar said that poor widows should not remarry as it
is a small matter to starve to death but a larger matter to lose integrity.
 But he believed that it was alright for the widower to remarry as only
women had to observe chastity.
Despite these changes, the woman could still keep her dowry and take it with
her should she remarry.
Confucianism and Women:
Development of Confucianism (5)
Under Confucianism, women were to follow the father in youth, the husband in
adulthood, and the son when widowed – the three dependences/follows sancong
– To follow/obey her father as a child;
– To follow/obey her husband as a wife;
– To follow/obey the son as a widow.
 The tradition is developed from the dress code for women for
mourning services.
– Before marriage her mourning dress was in accordance to the
rank held by her father.
– After marriage her mourning dress was in accordance to the
rank of her husband.
– In widowhood, her mourning dress was in accordance to her
son’s rank.
Confucianism and Women: Education
Elite women studied within the home.
In addition to painting, calligraphy, and poetry, they also had moral
education such as the Four Classics (compiled during the Qing dynasty),
and family regulations.
The first classic for women was Lessons for Women 女誡, written by Ban
Zhao 班昭 (c.35-100), the Han historian (only female historian) who
completed the Dynastic History of the Former Han (Eastern Han) after
her brother’s death and went on to tutor the Empress and Palace ladies.
– She wrote this for her granddaughter who was about to be married so
that the young woman would know how to live within the new family.
– It was written when she was about 60 years old.
It dealt with the proper behavior of women within a large Confucian
family and consisted of 7 chapters:
Confucianism and Women: Education (2)
– Being humble and submissive
– Husband and wife
– Being reverent and obedient
– Virtuous conduct
– Concentration (on serving one’s husband)
– Obeying (parents-in-law) selflessly
– Being harmonious with one’s brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law
It emphasized the four virtues side 四德 of women:
– Women’s moral virtue 妇德: to be modest in behavior during her
leisure time; to decently protect her virtue; to control herself; to
maintain a sense of shame; and to behave in acceptable ways in action
and at rest.
Confucianism and Women: Education (3)
– Women’s speech 妇言: to choose the words to say and not use coarse
language; to think first, then to speak, and not tire others.
– Women’s appearance 妇容: to clean house; to wash away dirt; to keep
her clothes and ornaments fresh and clean; to bathe herself regularly
in order not to be shamed by disgraceful appearance.
– Women’s work 妇工: to concentrate on sewing and weaving and not
joke around; to neatly prepare the wine and food for serving guests.
The second classic was the Analects for Women 女论语; it was written
during the Tang dynasty by two sisters surnamed Song.
– They were gifted scholars and were summoned into the palace by
Emperor Dezong (r.780-804).
 It was named “analects” as it was written in the style of the
Analects of Confucius 论语, supposedly written by disciples in
the style of questions and answers.
 The Analects stressed the chastity of women.
Confucianism and Women: Education (4)
The third classic, Instructions for dwellers in the Inner Chambers 内训,
was written by Empress Renxiaowen, the wife of Emperor
Chengzu/Yongle 永樂 of the Ming dynasty.
 It was written for the instruction of princesses and includes a chapter
on how to serve the emperor.
 During the Ming dynasty, there was a strong interest in the
publication of instructions for women.
 That is, the woman who was at the center of the dispute – who
needed the legitimacy – would sponsor these publications to show
that she was virtuous and deserving of that position (Yongle had
usurped the throne of his nephew).
Confucianism and Women: Education (5)
A Prompt Record of Lessons for women 女范捷录 was written by a
woman named Liu during the Qing dynasty who had been a widow for
60 years and was given an official commendation by the court at the age
of 90.
– Her son compiled her work together with the other three and the
compilation is referred to as the Four Classics for Women.
 There were other important texts for the education of women:
– Book Of Filial Piety for Women closely parallels the original Book
of Filial Piety 孝经.
 It was written by Ms. Zheng in Song/Tang, wife of an official.
 She wrote it for her niece who was about to marry a Prince.
Confucianism and Women: Education (6)
– The primary goal of the book is to expand the message in the
“Book of Filial Piety” to girls and women.
– It presents filial piety as the most important virtue and women
who never leaves their homes can exert a moral influence through
her influence within the household by transforming others.
Family regulations were also a requirement for the education of elite
women who had to first study those of her own family, then those of her
husband’s family.
– The family regulations were instructions on the correct behavior of
different members of the family. An example:
Confucianism and Women: Education (6)
 Except for the girls under 8 and daughters-in-law who have not
been married more than three months, all women in the house
should be taught to read the moral guidebooks for women and
the Lienü Zhuan (Biographies of Virtuous Women) so that
they will understand womanhood.
 They should not write, and they should not be allowed to study
the classics and literature.
These moral guidebooks were read until recent history; example can
be found in the novel “Family” Ji 家 by Ba Jin 巴金 in 1931.
– In this novel, a little girl, in addition to having her feet bound by
her old-fashioned mother is forced to read the Four Classics for
Changing Status of Women
Women’s status changed through time.
The changes were due to:
– The reduction of the importance of the belief in the spirit world and
the rise of rational philosophy
– The impact of Confucianism
– The impact of the religion
– The impact of law
– The impact of politics: The Mongolorization of China
The Changing Status of Women:
Impact of Law, Religion and Politics
Ching, Julia, Chinese Religions, “The Ancestral Cult and Divination”, pp 15-22;
“Sacrifice and Kingship”, pp. 33-50. O'Hara, Albert R., The position of women in early
China: according to the Lieh Nu Chuan, "The Biographies of Eminent Chinese
Women." pp. 255-85.
Hinsch, Bret, Women in Early Imperial China, pp 1-13, 15-26.
Ch’u T’ung-tsu, Law and Society in Traditional China
Tai, Yen-hui, “Divorce in Traditional China” in Buxbaum, ed., Chinese Law and
Social Change, pp. 75-106.
Despeaux & Kohn, Women in Daoism, Ch. 1-5 pp 244-251
“Observations on Marriage and Inheritance Practices in Early Mongol and Yuan
Society with particular reference to the Levirate” in Holmgren, Jennifer, Marriage,
Kinship and Power in Northern China. pp III, 127-192.
Paul, Diana Y., Women in Buddhism, “Introduction”, “Conclusion”.

Marketing - Department of History, CUHK